It wasn’t long ago that photography was accessible only to those with a bundle of expensive gear and the time and money to spend on photography classes. But times have changed: Today, smartphones put a camera in your back pocket, and snapping photos is an incredibly common art form. But access to photography without knowledge and skill can still result in mediocre pictures.
If your technique has yet to move beyond the basic point and click, don’t despair. It’s easier than ever to learn photography online. Here, you can get started with ten composition techniques that will ensure your photography is more pleasing to the eye.
1. Understand and Use Visual Weight
Visual information accounts for 90 percent of all the information the human brain receives. The act of seeing might seem simple, but that’s only because the human brain works incredibly quickly to perform the complex tasks involved in comprehending the world around you. The first task your brain tackles is figuring out what is what; the second task is figuring out what is important. Things that the brain deems more important have more pull on the eye. In the arts, this pull is called visual weight. Photographers who understand and use the visual weight of the elements in their photographs are more likely to move the viewer’s eye through the image in an effective way.
But what makes for pleasing movement through an image? The mind enjoys visual experiences of order, harmony, and ease. When the mind encounters visual disorder, it kicks into overdrive to make meaning of the chaos. If meaning can’t be pulled from the disorder, there may be a feeling of frustration or anxiety. A skilled photographer composes photographs that either provide that pleasing sense of harmony or provide disharmony from which order and meaning can be pulled.
“Certain elements in your photos, such as color, contrast, and size, are going to draw more attention than others, making them visually heavy,” explains Rebecca Loomis in her Skillshare course Learning To Look: An Intro to Taking Better Photos. “You can make elements in your image visually heavy by isolating them from the rest of the picture. Make your subject a bold color, use repetition to create contrast, or use a clear light background to make your subject stand out.”
2. Find a Focal Point
The mind of a viewer likes to find meaning and order, and part of finding meaning is figuring out what an image is about. Establishing a focal point is the photographer’s way of helping the viewer do just that. The focal point of a photograph is the object or area of greatest interest, and also tends to be the object or area in the sharpest focus.
Sometimes your focal point will be obvious. Other times, such as in wide-angle photographs of landscapes with many features, it might not be. But it’s the photographer’s job to select an element that interests them and place it in the frame in such a way that the viewer’s eye is drawn to appreciate it.
3. Consider the Rule of Thirds and Fibonacci’s Spiral
Once you’ve selected a focal point for your photograph, you’ll need to decide where to place it in the composition. Dead center is the most obvious spot for a focal point, and it’s true that if a point of interest is placed at the center of a composition, the viewer will just assume that this is what the photograph is about. But there are far more elegant placements for your focal point, and thanks to the Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, we know exactly where they are.
Around 1200 AD, Fibonacci discovered that a certain ratio was present nearly everywhere in nature, from the small spiral of a snail’s shell to the large swirl of tornado clouds, and was pleasing to the eye. Since then, artists have been using the ratio 1.618, or the Fibonacci spiral, to effectively place points of interest in their compositions. Some cameras and many photo-editing programs provide an overlay of the Fibonacci spiral, making it easy to use this famous ratio.
The rule of thirds is a simplified version of the Fibonacci spiral that helps you place your points of interest in those strangely satisfying spots without having to work out a complicated ratio. To use the rule of thirds, imagine laying a tic-tac-toe grid over a photograph, dividing the image into thirds horizontally and vertically. There will be four points where a vertical and a horizontal line intersect, and those are the sweet spots. Once you’ve chosen a focal point, place it at one of those intersections for a satisfying composition.
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If visual harmony is a priority in your composition—and in most cases, it should be—simplicity is a consistent way to achieve it. A simple composition, such as a close-up shot of a single flower, leaves no uncertainty as to the subject. Meanwhile, a photograph that has lots of detail in all areas of the image is likely to be confusing: The viewer may struggle to figure out what the important details are and how they should feel about them. You can spend some time practicing simplicity by focusing on a single subject or finding a straightforward, sweeping landscape.
But simplicity doesn’t just mean photographing simple subjects. Even if your subject is more complex, you can and should still be looking for ways to eliminate nonessential elements. It can be as basic as framing the composition to cut out distractions near the edges or in the foreground.
Unity is produced when elements in a composition bear similar qualities like shape, color, or texture. When taken to the extreme, unity can be monotonous and lifeless—a brick wall is an extreme example of unity—but used properly, unity can be interesting and incredibly soothing. The trick is to include just the right amounts of similarity and variation to achieve both harmony and visual interest. Try finding elements with similar colors and varied shapes, or vice versa. Once your eyes are opened to the compositional possibilities of unity, you’ll start seeing opportunities everywhere.
6. Lines and Patterns
When the eye encounters a line or pattern in a composition, it can’t help but trace it. That makes lines and patterns powerful tools that photographers can use to guide the viewer’s gaze through an image.
“Leading lines are things that go horizontally lines or lines that go vertically and that are going to lead the eye,” explains Tim Landis in the Skillshare Original Smartphone Photography: Capturing Landscapes. “They lead the eye to your subject or your point of focus.” This can be especially helpful when you are tackling a more complex composition. Using the meandering line of a river or the pattern of striations in a rock formation to point the viewer to a focal point can be a sophisticated strategy.
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7. Consider Negative Space
Positive space is any spot where a subject of interest can be found. Negative space, on the other hand, is everything that surrounds the positive space. On the scale of visual weight, which we discussed earlier, negative space is the stuff at the very bottom. The brain glosses over it. That doesn’t mean that negative space must be empty—it might even have some vague details to which the eye will return after it has scrutinized the composition’s points of interest—but negative space will be devoid of specific focal points.
Negative space is useful because it nudges the eye toward the subject. The more negative space in the composition, the stronger the nudge. Enough of it, and you’ve got an all-out shove. Using negative space generously also does interesting things to the mood of the composition. It can make the subject feel lonely, tranquil, unique, or vulnerable, and it almost always lends a pensive, restful feel to the composition because the eye has lots of space to rest.
8. Think in Threes
The mind is drawn to groups of three. There are three acts in a play, three verses in a song, and, in composition, three subjects in a group. Some suggest that this is due to the mind’s attraction to patterns—after all, three is the lowest number required to form one. Whatever the cause, it’s true that subtle discord, or visual competition, occurs when subjects appear in groups of two or four, and a kind of visual harmony is achieved when subjects occur in groups of three.
The power of three doesn’t only apply to groups of subjects. Any time you can deliberately create a composition with three distinct elements, for instance, ocean, sky, and boat, an inexplicably harmonious effect will result.
Balance and imbalance can greatly affect the viewer’s experience of a photograph. If the various elements of the image are in balance, or if balance is achieved through symmetry, it lends a feeling of wholeness to the composition.
Intentional imbalance can be used to draw attention to one element over another. For instance, if you are photographing an ocean scape and you give more room in the composition to the sky, it will suggest to the viewer that the sky is the true subject of the photograph; if you give more space to the water, the ocean will assert itself as the subject.
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10. Break the Rules
All of the techniques listed above are helpful concepts to have in your photography toolbox, but it’s important to resist the idea that great photography is the product of a simple formula. If every photographer just checked boxes, the art form would suffer for it. Some of the best pictures defy the rules, and even if breaking them does result in a compositional mess, artists must experiment and understand for themselves the effect of various compositional choices. Learn the rules, practice the rules, and then be prepared to deviate from them when the situation and your artistic instinct demand it.
Photography is a complex art, but learning to craft strong compositions is the indispensable first step to mastering it. With these ten composition techniques, you should be ready to get that camera out of your back pocket and take the photos you’ve always dreamed of. Now that you’ve got the basics, it’s a natural next step to dive into the more technical elements of photography, such as ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and photo-editing. Consider finding a class at a local college or taking a photography class online. The more you learn, the more you’ll be able to improvise and excel in the field.